What a title for a post - can there be anything less noticed in the world's most-ogled city? In the middle of September I celebrated my birthday with a day trip to Venice, to put into effect one of my bucket list intentions to see the Basilica of San Marco. I spent a week wandering Venice as a student but for some reason I can't remember, I couldn't visit San Marco, or even see it from the outside as it was shrouded with scaffolding. In the afternoon we joined the crowds of tourists being herded expeditiously round the interior by fiercesome officials - if you want to linger and look up you have to dive behind pillars. Photography inside the church or even in the arcade is strictly forbidden, so I have had to raid unknown sources on the web for my illustrations, including a picture of the Pala d'Oro, the magnificent gold and enamelwork altarpiece which I have been studying on and off for years. This is housed on the back of the main altarpiece in a separate chapel, so it was famously missed by Napoleon when he took over Venice in 1797 and carted back its valuables to Paris. The tourist literature displays palpable continuing resentment about the French sack, which makes me laugh mightily when I think that the Basilica and indeed Venice itself is largely entirely composed of materials and art which the Venetian Republic looted from Constantinople and elsewhere. You don't hear nearly so much about that little detail of history. In the evening I attended Mass, when the Basilica was splendidly lit, and during the incomprehensible homily gazed up at the great dome with the apostles looking up at Christ in Glory. After Mass there was an opportunity to light a candle for a departed friend and spend a few quiet moments with Venice's ancient miracle-working icon (looted from Constantinople), the Madonna Nikopeia. Like so many powerful icons, she is a small and unassuming panel, dwarfed by the magnificence of her ornaments and architectural setting. Some of the jewellery which once adorned the image can be seen in the Basilica treasury.
But for the truly less noticed, look beneath your feet. The magnificent Cosmati pavement, a mainly geometrical design composed of miraculously tiny pieces of coloured marbles and semi-precious stones is undergoing restoration. Much of it is covered to stop damage from thousands of tourist feet, but here and there it peeps out in all its beauty. The interlocking squares, triangles, circles and swirling quincunxes all have meaning in medieval natural philosophy, as do the choices of coloured stones. Nothing is random or simply decorative in medieval art. I became interested in Cosmati pavements about twenty-five years ago when I ran across a book about the meaning behind the Westminster Great Pavement (Patterns of Thought: The Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey: Richard Foster 1991.) The other day my husband and I tried cutting a few concrete pavers for a garden path, with disastrous results. How did these artistis cut such tiny patchwork pieces so accurately with only hand and water-powered tools? That is even more of a mystery to me than the arcane meaning of the geometry
This is the first painting to have left my desk for a long time, thanks to a big relocation (foreign country, foreign language, dilapidated house to renovate) which was accompanied by a surprise cancer diagnosis, with all the ensuing strains of seeking and undergoing treatment. It is so time-consuming to be ill! What better way to celebrate my ongoing recovery than with the completion of this unusual commission: the third Miracle at Cana icon I have painted for the same client, but this one a gift for his very special godson's forthcoming marriage. My client had very particular wishes for the overall design and colours, and has personalised the icon with the names of the bride and groom, and a blessing from John's gospel, all in Greek script. I had all the pleasure of wheeling out my best lapis lazuli and ordering a beautifully routed and cradled solid wood board from an artisan in Serbia.
It's not often I find myself in the vanguard of business innovation, so I was really pleased to hear a discussion about the popularity and success of buying art over the web on BBC Radio 4 this morning. I started selling paintings from my website back in 2009 - I think this little crucifix (now somewhere on Orkney) was one of the first commissions I received by internet. I have always been surprised and delighted that people are prepared to buy something so personal as an artwork 'sight unseen'; though the ability to email a high resolution photographic scan is really helpful, and I haven't yet had a buyer ask to return a painting. And my experience is mirrored higher up the feeding chain - apparently on line sales of art have been increasing across the board, even in the four and five figure bracket, and with giants such as Sothebys and Christies.
This is a wonderful thing for artists because, provided one can get to grips with the intricacies of on line marketing, it opens the world up for sales and liberates us from selling solely through brick-and-mortar galleries. People are always shocked to hear that an art gallery generally takes 50% of the sale price of a piece, plus VAT on top of that. In London that fee would often be 60% or 70%. Rent and rates on high street premises, glossy brochures and travelling to art fairs and functions all costs a great deal of money even before the gallery's staff costs are paid. It is very hard for a gallery owner to make a living. Unfortunately it is even harder for an artist. To make more than five pence an hour painting an original, an artist's work must command a very good price indeed, involving years spent slowly building a 'name' and nudging up ones prices. A gallery's commission is only the start of the expenses involved in selling. The artist bears the cost of professional framing - if you have ever had a print framed, you will know how expensive that can be. A gallery takes work 'on consignment' - that is to say, the artist is paid nothing for it until it sells, if at all. Often an artist has to pay an up-front annual fee for wall space before the gallery will actively market the work. As a result, many galleries are stocked largely with prints or cheerful-looking canvasses with rorschach blobs and splashes.
So dear reader, if you are buying art for your home and want something really original and unique I urge you to become a patron of the arts. Hunt down the artist's website and approach them directly. No prices displayed? It costs nothing to ask!
I am also currently working on the restoration of a big St George icon (dragon and princess this time) a project which I took on in a fit of rash enthusiasm and which I don't mind admitting is giving me a packet of trouble. Fortunately (as I am not a conservator) it is worth nothing either artistically or monetarily: it has sentimental value to the owner, who found it in a junk yard sale, because it reminds him of his Serbian heritage. It is a curious item: it seems to have been cast in resin from the riza on some old icon, complete with nail heads and tack holes. A riza (sometimes oklad, Russian) or revetment is an embossed metal cover made to protect a precious icon from candle smoke and the kisses of the faithful. The embossing echoes the painted design underneath and only the hands and faces of the saint peep out from the cover. I found some examples on line - one a 19th century version in plaster, and another which is copyright. This copy had been sprayed gold and paper prints of faces and hands pasted on the top. A few damp years in a garage, and they had peeled off completely. I am trying to replace them with something a little worthier than paper cut-outs, using gesso on balsa wood and a great deal of ingenuity. St George has also had a respray, silver this time at the client's request, and now he looks like the King of Bling. I can recommend Plasticote Brilliant Metallic spray paints, they really are remarkably convincing.
Courtauld Institute standards it is not, but I hope to turn it into something the client wants to hang in his home. Look back in a while for the faces. And before anyone else asks - no, I do not do restorations.
Some new bird-in-letter pieces for the new season. They will be sold individually, which is just as well because I see if I switch them around they will spell 'SOB', which was not what I intended...
The window as a whole is very large and elaborate in conception, and there are more expensive stained glass windows lining the nave, though Troutbeck is such a tiny place you could blink and miss it - Troutspeck, even. I guess the grandees who commissioned the many fabulous Arts and Crafts or neo-gothic holiday palaces in those parts were gracious enough to share some of their worldly excess with the local yokels who joined them for worship in these little village churches.
I don't think the effects of myopia - or even astigmatism or cataracts - on a person's life have been given proper credit by art historians. Most illuminated manuscripts have details so tiny that the artist must have had magnifiers or have been naturally shortsighted to paint such tiny detail so perfectly: reproductions in books tend to be enlarged so one doesn't get a true impression of how tiny they were. I've always been very short-sighted myself, and when I take off my glasses I can see in glorious magnification provided I have my work no more than an inch from my face. Anything further away is a miasmal mist, so that I have to line up my pigment pots in a special order and locate them by feel. I am exploiting my own weakness by choosing to paint small, but if I wanted to go larger it would have to be as a latter-day misty Impressionist or a new Jackson Pollock. Easel painting would mean constantly juggling with three sets of eyewear.
Getting back to Gutenberg and his printing press, the Museum was very empty when I visited so I was lucky enough to get a turn printing a page of St John's gospel on his very machine. So exciting! The machine actually started out life as a wine press, which Gutenberg adapted to the purpose. An incredibly heavy contraption to turn- his assistants must have been a brawny bunch.
ermany has a tradition of carved religious statuary unbroken from the early middle ages, so was not surprised that this art form dominated the lovely Schuetgen Museum in Cologne: it is a private collection, donated to the city, and perfectly housed in Romanesque church building. I had the place almost to myself, and could walk round all the exhibits and examine them from near and far to my heart's content, only slightly inhibited by the hovering of the museum guardian who, having no one else to keep an eye on, and presumably having long since exhausted the novelty of the exhibits, trailed me round like my own personal minder. I remarked hintfully that he must find the work very dull but he shrugged and said, "Ein Job ist ein Job".
Looking over the photographs I took, I feel provoked to get on the soapbox for one of my rants. Will somebody please tell me how in the world we got from this:-
A 12th C carved wooden corpus (polychrome, but paint now eroded) in Schnuetgen Museum Cologne.
- to this? - And this?
The local talent
People, have we all gone blind? Is this a proper focus for prayer and meditation? Why are we confronted every Sunday by this kind of ubiquitous glassy-eyed tat? Is it because The Committee would rather buy something out of a supplier's catalogue than risk dealing with a real live artist? There are people who make a living out of restoring these plaster statues - it shouldn't be allowed! When I am dictator of the world we will consign all the hideous pious paraphernalia to the cemetery and commssion some real artists. Even if it's not world class it will surely be more honest and expressive than what we've got now. There is a Facebook Group entitled "I'm fed up with bad church music". I propose a sister act entitled "We're sick of tacky church art",
I have worked myself up into such a passion now that I can only append, without further invidious comparison, a sample of the other magnificent Christian art on display at the Schnutgen Museum.
The view from my desk
Current work, places and events, art travel, and interesting snippets about Christian icons, medieval art, manuscript illumination, egg tempera , gilding, technique and materials.